On January 26, 1699, by effectively ending the trisection of Hungary, the Treaty of Karlowitz marked the end of Ottoman control in Central Europe and established the Habsburg Monarchy as the dominant power in the region.
Seen by many Hungarians as the decisive downward turning point in their country’s history, Suleiman the Magnificent’s victory at the Battle of Mohács in 1526 and the Turkish conquest of Buda in 1541 led to the partition of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary between the Habsburg Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire, which lasted for more than a century and a half.
While the kingdom’s western and northern fringes remained under Habsburg rule as Royal Hungary, the central wedge, including the former royal capital of Buda, was integrated into the administrative system of the Ottoman Empire, and its eastern half grew into the semi-autonomous Principality of Transylvania, ruled by the Hungarian Báthory family, also under Ottoman suzerainty.
The age of trisection
During this so-called “age of trisection”, constant warfare between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs turned Hungary into a perpetual battlefield which devastated much of the land and reduced the whole south of the country to a wasteland occupied by only a few seminomadic Vlach herdsmen. Population growth was stunted, settlements perished, and the ethnic composition of the territory was fundamentally changed through deportations and massacres.
During that time, a majority of Hungarians living under Ottoman rule became Protestant, as Habsburg counter-Reformation efforts could not penetrate the Ottoman lands and the Turks were indifferent to the Christian denominations practiced by their Hungarian subjects. In Transylvania, now beyond the reach of Catholic authority, Lutheran and Calvinist preaching was allowed to flourish.
But by the start of the 17th century, the balance of power in Central Europe began to shift from the Ottomans toward the Habsburgs. The Peace of Zsitvatorok, signed in 1606, between the emperor and the sultan more or less kept the territorial status quo but relieved the emperor of his tribute to the sultan and confirmed the Ottomans’ inability to penetrate further into Habsburg territories.
When the Thirty Years’ War broke out in 1618, Royal Hungary sided with the Catholics, while Transylvania’s Calvinist prince, Gabriel Bethlen, encouraged by the Ottomans, joined the Protestant side and invaded Habsburg territory. But Ferdinand’s defeat of the Bohemians at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, combined with Bethlen’s lack of support from the Ottomans, allowed the emperor to reconquer most of Royal Hungary by 1621.
The Polish-Ottoman wars
Despite not directly participating in the Thirty Years’ War, the mighty Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was allied to the Habsburg Monarchy and intervened in Transylvania against Gabriel Bethlen. In response, the young Ottoman sultan Osman II, who had grown weary of Poland’s influence in Russia and of Cossack raids descending on Turkish settlements, gathered a large army with the intent of leading a punitive invasion of the Commonwealth.
Despite peace being signed and both sides claiming victory following the 1621 Battle of Khotyn, the borderland area between the Ottoman Empire and the Commonwealth remained in a state of semi-permanent warfare throughout the 17th century, with the Ottomans responding to further Cossack raids by directing their vassal Crimean Tatar forces against the Polish territory.
But when Ukrainian Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky led a Cossack rebellion against Polish domination in 1648, the Tatars of the Crimean Khanate, then a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, participated in the insurrection, seeing it as a source of captives to be sold. By 1666, the newly-formed Cossack Hetmanate was recognized as a vassal of the Ottoman Empire.
When the waning Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, weakened by decades of wars and uprisings, tried once again to take over Cossack Hetmanate in 1670, the Ottoman Empire invaded Ukraine in a bid to try to gain control of the region for itself. And despite the newly-elected Polish King John Sobieski dealing several defeats to the forces of the sultan, the Commonwealth was forced to cede large swaths of Ukraine to the Ottoman Empire when peace was signed in 1676.
The treaty with the Ottomans began a period of peace that was much needed for the repair of the Commonwealth. John Sobieski managed to reform the Polish army completely, the infantry finally dropping pikes and replacing them with battle-axes, and the Polish cavalry adopting hussar and dragoon formations. The new king also greatly increased the number of cannon and introduced new artillery tactics.
The Battle of Vienna
Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire, bolstered by its successes against the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, turned once again its sight to Vienna. The sultan undertook extensive logistical preparations, including the repair and establishment of roads and bridges leading into the Habsburg territory and its capital, as well as the forwarding of ammunition, cannon, and other resources from all over the Empire into Hungary and the Balkans.
By 1682, clashes along the border seperating the Holy Roman and Ottoman empires intensified, and the incursions of Habsburg forces into central Hungary provided the crucial argument of Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha in convincing Sultan Mehmed IV and his Divan to allow the movement of the Ottoman army. But the long wait between mobilization and the invasion provided ample time for Vienna to prepare its defense and for the emperor to form an alliance with Pope Innocent XI and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
In April 1683, the Ottoman army, joined by Transylvanian and Hungarian forces, finally launched its full-scale offensive into Habsburg territory, reaching Belgrade by early May, and finally laying siege to Vienna on July 17. Meanwhile, John Sobieski began preparing a relief expedition and, despite the multinational composition of the Christian army, an effective leadership structure was established, centered on the Polish king.
Acting quickly to save the city and prevent another long siege, the confederated troops crossed into imperial territory in September before taking position on the Kahlenberg hill above Vienna. After a whole day of heavy fighting under the walls of the city, John Sobieski led the largest cavalry charge in history at the head of 3,000 “Winged Hussars” to deal the final deadly blow and save the Habsburg capital.
Marking the turning point in the 300-year struggle between the Holy Roman and Ottoman empires, the Battle of Vienna shook the Ottoman hegemony in Central Europe and set the stage for the reconquest of Hungary, Transylvania and the Balkans. Indeed, while the Pope hailed Sobieski as the “Savior of Vienna and Western European civilization”, the war with the Ottomans was not over yet.
The Holy League and the Treaty of Karlowitz
Joined by the Republic of Venice and the Russian Empire, a new “Holy League” was initiated by Pope Innocent XI and John Sobieski to recover previously ceded land and prevent further Ottoman expansion into Europe in what has been called a “14th crusade”. While the second Battle of Mohács in 1687 allowed the Habsburg forces to conquer large areas, including most of present-day Transylvania, the decisive Battle of Zenta, a decade later, sealed the Ottomans’ fate in Europe.
The scale of the defeat forced the Ottoman Empire into signing the Treaty of Karlowitz in January 1699, which confirmed the then-current territorial holdings of each power. Notably, the Habsburg Monarchy was able to reclaim all of Hungary, except the corner between the Maros and Tisza rivers, effectively ending the trisection of the kingdom.
Venice also reclaimed the Peloponnese peninsula and regions in Dalmatia, while Poland regained Podolia as well as part of Ukraine west of the Dnieper River, which the Turks had conquered in 1672. The Treaty of Karlowitz marked the end of Ottoman control in Central Europe, with their first major territorial losses after centuries of expansion, and established the Habsburg Monarchy as the dominant power in the region.
The term “Royal Hungary” fell into disuse after the Treaty of Karlowitz, with the Habsburg rulers referring to the newly enlarged dominion by the more formal term “Kingdom of Hungary”…
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